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200 years after his death, Napoleon leads a divided France into battle again

While most modern French leaders have shunned paying tribute to the divisive general, Macron broke with convention and urged the country to confront its history.
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PARIS — "Napoleon is a part of us," French President Emmanuel Macron said Wednesday in a landmark speech marking the 200th anniversary of the emperor's death.

Whether that's for better or worse has been the subject of a bitter national debate that has mirrored and stoked the more modern culture wars dividing French society and challenging its notions of national identity.

Napoleon Bonaparte has been lionized by some — largely on the political right — as a military genius, a modernizer and a national hero who evokes a more glorious time. To others he's an imperialist, a warmonger and an enslaver who should be vilified, not venerated.

While most present-day French leaders have shunned paying tribute to the divisive general, Macron broke with convention and urged the country to confront its history.

He also laid a wreath at the foot of Napoleon’s grandiose tomb at Les Invalides, a gold-domed monument, as France uneasily commemorated the bicentenary of Napoleon's death in 1821 while looking ahead to presidential elections next year.

"If his splendor resists the erosion of time, it is because his life carries in each of us an intimate echo," Macron said in a speech at the Institut de France — established by Napoleon on the banks of the Seine River.

"The life of Napoleon is an ode to political will. The path of a child from Ajaccio who became the master of Europe shows clearly that a man can change the course of history," said Macron, who is the country's youngest leader since Napoleon and has sought to position himself as a similarly defining figure.

Image: French President Macron heads bicentennial commemoration of Napoleon's death
President Emmanuel Macron at Napoleon's tomb during a ceremony Wednesday to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the general and emperor's death at the Cathedral Saint-Louis of the Invalides in Paris. Sarah Meyssonnier / Reuters

The anniversary was a time for "enlightened commemoration," though not a celebration, Macron added.

Napoleon's legacy, particularly around slavery, has come under fresh scrutiny amid the global reckoning on race that followed the death of George Floyd, which spurred protests on French streets and across several European capitals.

In 1802 Napoleon restored slavery by decree in the French Caribbean, reversing its abolition there in 1794. Revolts were violently put down while white landowners and the expanding French empire got richer.

Black historians and commentators say that aspect of his legacy remains unaddressed in France, which still grapples with its colonial past and charges of deep-rooted inequality and racism toward its minority and immigrant populations. The heated debate comes days ahead of the country's commemoration of the abolition of slavery in France, marked annually on May 10.

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Macron described Napoleon's decision to reinstate slavery as a betrayal, but critics were still dismayed by his tributes to the man who helped shape modern-day France.

"This commemoration is a national shame," said Louis-Georges Tin, an activist and honorary president of the Representative Council of France's Black Associations. "When the president of a country pays tribute to a man who committed so many crimes and a crime against humanity, that says a lot about the moral standards in the country."

Tin, who was born on the Caribbean island of Martinique, said Macron's actions caused "offense" not only to Black people in France and overseas but to all those who consider themselves "humanist."

In July, protesters in Martinique, a French territory, tore down a statue of Napoleon's empress, Josephine, who was born to a wealthy colonial family on the island.

"Napoleon was instrumental in creating the roots of racism and discrimination in France, he was uncontestably a racist," said Claude Ribbe, author of "Napoleon's Crimes." "And as for slavery, other countries had slavery, too, but France under Napoleon is the only country to reinstate it."

But for Peter Hicks, head of international affairs at the Fondation Napoléon, a Paris-based research organization, the emperor was a man of his time and should be viewed in historical context.

"The thing about the slavery episode in the Napoleonic epic is, it's so tangential," Hicks said.

Napoleon was not a racist, he added, and had "no real interest in the idea of color." He instead thought mostly in terms of power, politics and order, Hicks said.

"History is complex, it's difficult and strange, and Napoleon is part of that, for good and for bad," Hicks said, citing the general's outsize influence on global affairs from Chile to Russia.

"He's so quintessential to the creation of France, you might not like it but you can't not look at it en face," he added.

Napoleon seized power in a 1799 coup, overthrowing the fledgling democracy that had deposed the French monarchy. Battlefield victories spread his power across Europe before his defeat to the British at Waterloo.

A master administrator, Napoleon created France's penal code, as well as the administrative system of regions and schools that still exist today. But he also rolled back advances in women's rights and fought brutally for supremacy in the West Indies sugar trade.

He died in exile on Saint Helena in the South Atlantic Ocean at the age of 51.

The 200th anniversary of his death falls at a politically sensitive time, with France one year out from a presidential election.

The far-right leader Marine Le Pen, Macron's main challenger, criticized the president for not celebrating the legacy of "an eternal French hero."

Polls suggest Le Pen has been gaining ground.

"President Macron tried to conciliate the different views that are currently in France about Napoleon," said François Héran, a sociologist and academic at the Collège de France in Paris.

"Every act of Emmanuel Macron has, of course, an electoral orientation, there's no doubt about it, but he could have maintained the traditional view on Napoleon's cult that we're accustomed to, and he did not ... which is rather courageous," he said.

But Héran disagreed with the view that Napoleon was simply a man of his time. He added that young people and social media were driving "an evolution" and pushing for a re-examination of French identity, which included fresh scrutiny of Napoleon's legacy.

"We need to face all the aspects of our French history. Let's be able to look without denial," Héran said. "It's not self-hatred. It's the only way to be adult."

Nancy Ing reported from Paris, and Adela Suliman reported from London.